Exploration Is Key to Making Unique Landscape Photos

Contemporary landscape photography is dominated by the same 20-50 locations. We have all seen specific locations being reproduced and reinterpreted repeatedly, and only a few stand out from the crowd. The key to making unique landscape photos is very simple: find something new to photograph.

Let me be the first to say I have absolutely nothing against photographing the icons. There are many benefits to doing so, and I thoroughly enjoy it myself. However, it is hard to argue that no matter how you edit your photos, they will hardly be unique. Someone else has already made that sunrise photo from Mesa Arch, someone else has already made a long exposure black and white fine art photo from Skogafoss, someone else has certainly already photographed the northern lights above Kirkjufell, and a yellow raincoat has already visited all these locations. It is fun to visit and photograph the icons; it hones your skills, gives a sense of achievement, and gives you a fantastic experience. Nevertheless, the photos are not unique. In the end, you have to ask yourself if these photos represent you, what the next step for your photography is, and if you want to photograph something no one has done before.

There is hardly any place or any landscape photo more famous than the sunrise at Mesa Arch.

In my latest video, I share some of the different techniques I use to find new and interesting places to photograph. Due to the current world situation, I use Denmark as an example; however, the techniques apply to any country. Whether you just want to go and explore something random, want to increase your chances of finding something, or if you look for something specific, these techniques should be able to help you. The techniques are even more powerful if you combine them.

If I want to explore a specific mountainous area, Google Earth is a very powerful tool. I can spend hours looking through different valleys and find peaks that stand out. I have used Google Earth to prepare for many different locations. A couple of these examples include both one photo from the Faroe Islands and another from Denmark. Just see the two before and after photos below.

Another technique is to explore your local tourist homepages. In Denmark, we have “Visit Denmark,” and in England, they have “Visit England.” These homepages are treasure chests of information: much information on cityscapes, but you do not have to search for long before you find information about nature and landscapes. Most countries also have specific tourist information about local areas, where you can find outstanding spots close to home.

I also find information through different national nature services. In the US, a great example of this would be the National Park Service, and in Denmark, we have something equal, which provides articles and extensive information on where to go and what to see in nature.

A location I found while exploring a forest I found via the Danish Nature Department.

If you search for something very specific, Google is still your best friend. Let us say you want to find some oak trees close to where you live: you just search for “Oak Trees” and the location you are close to. You may want to do it in your own language, as most of this information is made by locals for the locals.

Again, let me stress this is not an article about not going to the icons; this is an article about not depending on them for amazing photography.

In the video above, I have more suggestions on how to explore and utilize social media for exploration, so be sure to check it out and let me know if you have more tips for finding new and unique places to photograph.

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16 Comments

Stuart Carver's picture

I have zero interest in trawling around these honeypot locations bumping elbows with other photographers to get ‘the shot’... give me some empty, less stunning location as a challenge to create an image all day long.

I do believe that exploring on your own is key to both unique landscape photos, and great personal growth. However, it's still possible to do that within well-known areas like Arches National Park. For example, I went there for the second time in my life last year, and set a goal of not photographing any arches during a three-day stay inside the park. Arches, like most large parks, is full of different terrain and places to explore all on your own. Heck, I even set out in late afternoon to get some shots down along the "Park Avenue" trail around sunset (it's less than a mile from the entrance), and I was the only one there. It was a little spooky, given how crowded the park was in general. But yeah, I guess everyone was over at one of the famous arches to get "sunstars" or whatever. I could name other trails and places, but you get the idea. In short, you have to wander around instead of heading to a predetermined location for a perdetermined photo.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

I think you can do both, but the wandering around certainly hightens your chance of getting something truly unique :)

Jordan McChesney's picture

One of the befits of, seemingly, being one of the few English speaking photographers living in Japan, is that I get to photograph so many locations that the traveling ones would never know about. As you said, using Google Earth and Maps are two amazing tools. Google Maps has helped me plan more unique shots in Japan than I can count, and it really helped with my trip over to Paju, a location I've never seen a photograph from.

One of these days I've got to figure out how workshops work, so I can run some over here, haha.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

I guess there ought to be a potential market there for sure ;)

Jordan McChesney's picture

I certainly hope so, haha. I know some people do guided photo tours of Tokyo, but I’m not really into that, so hopefully I’ll be able to attract a different market.

Marketing as a nobody is going to be a challenge, but I have tons of time to work out the details, so no real rush, I suppose.

Hans Gunnar Aslaksen's picture

It is so rewarding when you find your own comp 🥁

Kai Hornung's picture

I find Pinterest helpful in online location scouting outside the often shot locations.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

That's a really great idea, Kai!

Aritz Atela's picture

don´t forget Tik Tok, Kai!

Mark Doiron's picture

Thank you. I completely agree. Funny story. When I shot Mesa Arch, I wanted something unique (Duh). Yes, I got the standard shot, but I wanted something that stood out as different when you search "Mesa Arch images". And I think I mostly succeeded. Later on I also shot a more typical photo. I sent both to a contest sponsored by USAToday where Ken Burns (yes, that one) would select the winners from hundreds, thousands (?) of submissions. My regular old, every photographer who's ever been to Canyonlands has his own take, was one of the several selected. Ken Burns used a quote about ***sunsets*** in describing my photo. Yes, the same Ken Burns that did the series on our national parks. LOL!

If you're interested, my attempt to portray it differently can be found on a page with my favorite landscape shots. Actually, both are there. I'm complete amateur, so don't expect highly stylized "art photography". Learning the ropes decades ago with slide film has definitely influenced my style to simple editing drills.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/DQwT2SetJyR2Q7hw5

You will see some different locations portrayed there because I have an overlanding rig capable of supporting me in remote locations all over. It's my most expensive photography tool, but worth every penny.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Beautiful collection and I love the glow you got at Mesa, yet also got the reflected light underneath the Arch. Really nice! :)

What I appreciate most about this post is that you provide techniques for actually doing remote exploration. Most of us, even pros, having lives that don't easily lend themselves to exploration and discovery, either due to lack of time or proximity. Methods for researching and exploring remotely are very helpful.

Drazen Cavar's picture

I don't feel photographers lack creativity to make beautiful images out of any possible world's scenery, but it looks as if that those who live off landscapes have to adapt to mass public that is "trained" for Dolomites and Island.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

I actually don't think that the mass public is particularly trained in anything but journalistic photography, as that's what they're mainly exposed to. I think it's a culture within the landscape photography community that pushes Iceland, Dolomites etc. Someone started it back in the days and those landscapes have the most "wow"-factor, they're exotic and exciting for most amateur photographers and slowly but surely more people go to photograph these landscapes and in that way we enter a "negative" spiral of focus on those landscapes instead of "almost" any landscape works for fantastic landscape photos.

Aritz Atela's picture

The work behind the final shot. Is there anything more rewarding than "finding" your dreamed composition far away the typical locations? Bangers are everywhere waiting for you to be discovered. :)